The Untold Story of the St Andrews’ “Rabbit Wars” of 1801-1821

Legendary golf writer Bernard Darwin devoted a small chapter of his 1932 book Out of the Rough to “The ‘Ifs’ of Golf History.”  What if steel shafts hadn’t been legalized and we still played with hickory?  What if the gutta percha ball hadn’t been replaced by the rubber-cored “Haskell” ball?  What if the Old Course in St Andrews, Scotland had been rendered unplayable by rabbits and abandoned in the early 1800s?  What?  Actually, Darwin left that one out of his book, but it’s an interesting question to consider.  People may know about hickory shafts and the Haskell ball, but have no idea what rascally rabbits had to do with the most famous golf course in the world.

Golf had been played for more than 200 years over the Pilmor (or Pilmure) Links of St Andrews when a brouhaha erupted between the gentleman golfers of the Royal and Ancient (R&A) Golf Club and the family that leased the land the links occupy, triggering the so called “Rabbit Wars” that almost brought things to a grinding halt.

It’s an odd tale that began with politicians mucking things up – what a surprise!  St Andrews, in decline at the end of the eighteenth century and run by an inept Town Council, was in need of cash to keep it afloat.  In February 1797 it persuaded two local merchants, John Gunn and Robert Gourlay to advance the town £2080 Sterling.  As security against the loan the two men acquired a bond over the links that gave them the right to sell “whole or part of the subjects” at public auction.

They did just that in November 1797, selling part of the land to Thomas Erskine for £805.  In August 1799, Erskine sold the feu [right to the use of land for an annual payment] to Charles Dempster and his son Cathcart.  With a name like Cathcart you knew something weird might happen, and trouble ensued.

The Dempsters rented the land for £130 a year to one James Begbie, who bred rabbits on their behalf, selling the pelts and meat.  For almost two years the rabbits did what they do best, until their numbers overwhelmed the links, with the scrapes and holes they made in the ground becoming an increasing nuisance to the golfers.

The situation came to a head in October 1801, when George Cheape, Captain of the R&A, wrote a letter to the Town Council complaining of the “destruction of the links” by the infestation of rabbits.  The members of the club kept playing and complaining, but precious little changed.  When Hugh Cleghorn became Captain in 1802 he upped the ante.  On 15 January 1803 he moved to have members of the club contribute to a fund “sufficient for vindicating their right before the Court of Sessions…,” and twelve members formed a committee “for the purpose of carrying on the prosecution against the Dempsters.”  Contributions poured in – even from far flung places like India and the West Indies – as the fund reached almost £1000.  For another two years a case was built against the Dempsters, and in December 1805 a “State of the Process” report was issued.

The plaintiffs maintained that the inhabitants of the city, the gentlemen in the neighborhood, and “all others who chose to resort thither for the purpose of playing golf, have, for time immemorial, enjoyed the constant and uninterrupted privilege of playing golf” on the ground known as Pilmore Links or Links of St Andrews, and that privilege was being threatened.  They pointed out that the magistrates and Town Council had historically restricted tenants – they were not to plough up “any part of the said golfing course” or do anything that might injure the course.  The plaintiffs declared that the “tenant should not have it in his power to make use of the said links as a rabbit warren…”  If action was not taken the links “will soon be rendered altogether unfit for the purpose of playing golf” and they moved that the Dempsters get rid of the rabbits and “keep and preserve the said Golf Links, or course of golfing, in the same state of good order, and entirely as they have been for ages in time past…”

Witnesses testified to the condition of the course, with most agreeing that it had declined perceptibly.  Charles Robertson, who for twenty-five years had served as the greenskeeper, had resigned from that position four years earlier because he could not keep up with the repair of the scrapes created by the rabbits.  George Mitchell said that before the Dempsters and their tenant arrived, there were very few rabbit scrapes or occasions when his ball found one, but now he claimed on one occasion his ball found “a scrape three holes running.”

George Robertson, who had been a caddie for twenty-five years, claimed that before the Demptsers rabbits were not numerous and people had the right to kill them.  There had always been “small holes or scrapes likewise in the course, but there are fifty now for one there was formerly…”  The total number of scrapes and holes was even entered into the record – 895, with the most being the 232 found between the 7th and 8th holes.   

The Dempsters, for their part, denied that the links had been rendered unfit for playing golf, asserting they were “actually just now, and have been, since the commencement of the process, in the best possible order.”  The plaintiffs’ argument seemed to resonate with those whose opinion mattered.  In May 1806 court magistrates issued an interlocutor to the effect that the society of golfers had the right to destroy the rabbits, and that it was the clear responsibility of the defendants to see that no damage be done to the golfing ground.

Two months later a defiant Cathcart Dempster published a signed advertisement addressed to “the Inhabitants of St Andrews.”  “You have been stimulated by unsigned advertisements,” he began, “in the name of the Magistrates and Golfers, to destroy the private property of my father and I on the Links of St Andrews, on the ground that you had an undoubted and legal right to do so – but I would advise you to pause, before you venture to act upon such vague authority.”  You can almost see the blood rushing to his face as he wrote down the words.  “Far be it from me,” he continued, “to encroach upon any of your lawful privileges, but…killing of rabbits on these Links is NOT one of them.”

He next addressed the uproar “raised against the proprietors of the Links, for using them as a Rabbit-Warren, as if they had done an unlawful deed.  I must, however, inform those who make this noise, that they labour under a great mistake; for the doing so is strictly lawful being particularly recommended by an ACT of PARLIAMENT.”

He had a point to make, and made it.  As far back as 1726 the Town Council had allowed William Gib to put “his black and white rabbits in the Links, during the Council’s pleasure; that he shall have the privilege of disposing them; but the Links are not to be spoiled where the golfing is used, and the Council may recall the grant at a month’s notice.”  The precedent had been established.  What was in question was whether the rabbits were spoiling the grounds.

Dempster argued that at the time “the Town Council of St Andrews granted my father and I a Disposition to the Links, they were actually under a tack [lease] for 19 years as a RABBIT WARREN: and which tack we were taken bound to fulfill.  But, you’ll naturally ask, who granted this tack and who wrote it?  Why, I’ll tell you! The then and present CHIEF MAGISTRATE of St Andrews GRANTED IT, and the then and present TOWN-CLERK of St Andrews WROTE IT!!!” 

Cathcart made a valid argument, and it gives one pause to consider the politics of the case.  On the one hand there were the proper gentleman golfers, many of whom represented the inherited wealth of their forefathers, resenting the pesky rabbits that were interfering with their leisure pleasures.  On the other hand were the Dempsters, successful merchants who were also members of the golfing society but whose money perhaps was not “old” enough.  Even if they had the law on their side, Charles and Cathcart were outnumbered.  As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “It’s a court of law, not a court of justice.”

In a public reply a week later to Cathcart’s testy defense, the magistrates of St Andrews and the Society of Golfers countered that a rabbit-warren on the links was “certainly unjustifiable in itself, because, at the time the feu of them was disposed of, the Magistrates never meant that this use should be made of them.” 

Referring to the suit that had been brought and the interlocutor issued two months earlier in favor of the plaintiffs, the Dempsters were not “supported by that Law to which they say they have appealed.  So very much to the contrary – on their protesting against form of the GENTLEMAN of the GOLFING SOCIETY, who went out in open day to assert their unquestionable right to destroy the Rabbits, and on their applying to the Lord Ordinary for an interdict to prevent such conduct in future, the interdict was refused…”  The killing of the rabbits had been upheld, but hostilities continued.  New battle lines were drawn by the two sides, and détente would not be achieved for more than a decade.

The minutes of the R&A from November 1806 indicate that a committee was formed “to guard against any encroachment made on the links, particularly a dyke [a low wall] that Mr. Dempster is now making between the third and fourth holes.”  In March 1807 a letter was presented to the club by a member of the R&A, John Fraser, who had been attacked and nearly murdered two months earlier by one of the Dempster’s men as a reprisal for events of the previous June.

One can only imagine how unsettling it was for the golfers who ventured out to play in such a hostile environment.  Each round must have been akin to entering a combat zone.  The records are scant as to the specific behavior of the parties during these years, but we know that in 1812 the matter went on appeal to the House of Lords.  After a four day hearing Lord Eldon found that there had been inconsistencies in the decisions of the lower court and referred it back to the Court of Session in Scotland.

The court found as incompetent the finding that the plaintiffs had the right to destroy the rabbits.  With regard to the golfing grounds, the town council had “no rights whatsoever in so far as respects it, so long as their feu duty continues to be regularly paid.”  In deciding the case Lord Eldon noted that if it were possible to feed cattle on the land, golf balls might have found their way into what cattle occasionally leave behind them, and the golfers would have been “in a worse scrape than if he got into a rabbit scrape.”  There is no evidence of any further proceedings by the parties after this point. 

Lasting peace finally came in 1821, when James Cheape, a wealthy landowner and former Captain of the R&A, purchased the links.  As a young man Cheape went to India and was employed in the civil establishment by the East India Company, for many years at the presidency in Bombay.  He returned to Scotland and in 1782 acquired the estate of Strathtyrum, which adjoins the southern boundary of the links.  He joined the Society of St Andrews Golfers and five years later he won the Silver Club, which carried with it the captaincy of the club.

Cheape lived a quiet life on his estate, but was drawn into the rabbit wars when crops on his Balgrove farm were destroyed by rabbits, which consumed “the corn, turnip, and potatoe [sic] crops…”  One of the witnesses in the 1805 case, George Russell, who had owned a rabbit warren of his own, estimated that there were 900 rabbits on the links, and testified that they could travel a mile to search for food, which they found in abundance on Cheape’s farm.

It’s hard to know why James Cheape bought the links, perhaps he wanted more land, perhaps it was his love for golf.  But when he became the owner in 1821 he changed the history of the course.  His agent, John Govan notified him in a letter dated 13 July of that year:  “I give you joy of becoming the purchaser of the Pilmor Links, which I have this moment effected at the upset price of £3150…I hope you continue to be satisfied with your acquisition, which always seemed to me to add very much indeed to the dignity of Strathtyrum, whose eastern boundary will now be washed twice a day, so long as the world remains, by the German Ocean [North Sea].” 

George Cheape congratulated his brother on becoming “the Laird of St Andrew Links, and I sincerely you will enjoy them…I don’t say they will ever be a profitable concern…[but] I have no doubt but the people will be very happy they have at least come into your hands.”  Little did George know that today St Andrews would have seven courses and players would come from all over the world to play some 45,000 rounds a year on the Old Course alone.  Certainly George, it has become a profitable concern.

It was quite fortuitous that James Cheape became the owner of the links when he did.  Although he had the legal right “of having a Rabbit-Warren there whenever he chooses,” wrote his agent John Govan, “on the contrary, wishing to evince his good will to the Honorable Company of Golfers, of which he is himself one of the oldest members, he has ordered his game keeper and has given permission to his friends to destroy the Rabbits to prevent the possibility of injuring the links – so that at present few of those animals are to be seen.”

Cheape also took steps to define the boundaries of the course by having it surveyed and marked with march stones denoting the edges of the golfing grounds.  In a letter to Colonel Bethune of Blebo dated 7 December 1821 he explained: “I have a letter from Mr. Alex Martin, the Gentleman whom I employed to survey the links of St Andrews…to say that he would be on the ground as on this day, with his Plan, so as far as it could be done until the March Stones were placed.  The stones are ready and I hope there will be no obstruction to their being placed, as I am ready to give my consent to any extention [sic] of the Golfing Ground that may be judged reasonable.”  

In the same letter Cheape made note of a meeting he had on September 28 with thirty members of the club, and his desire to relinquish the right to pursue any legal action with regard to his right to use the land for any means he wished.  He “was ready to confirm the entire privilege of the Golfing Ground, as the Society at present proposed it.”  Cheape reminded Blebo how the members had “received this my declaration to put a stop to all future litigation.  I may say, they approved of it by acclamation as they honored me with three hearty cheers on the occasion.”

James Cheape’s magnanimity thus effectively ended the Rabbit Wars.  The survey he commissioned is the oldest known plan of the Old Course and defined not only the boundaries of the course but also outlined each hole and its yardage.  His legacy is apparent today, as march stones can be seen around the course (covered with artificial turf to blend in with the grass).  The Strathtyrum course, built in 1993 is another reminder of his influence, along with a bunker on the 2nd hole that bears the family name.

James Cheape died in 1824, leaving no children.  He was succeeded by his brother George, twenty years his junior, who was Laird of Strathtyrum until his death in 1850.  It was George who was the first to warn the Town Council in 1801 of the damage being done to the links by the rabbits.  His grandson James, himself a member of the R&A, sold the links to the Club in 1894 for £5000, but the family remained in control of the estate.  In the family papers preserved at the University of St Andrews there are account books kept by this James Cheape.  They indicate him selling, from 1904-1910, to Robert Pratt, butcher in St Andrews – what else – rabbits!  Today you still see a hare or two while walking the Old Course, but the war waged against them ended almost two hundred years ago, allowing the course to survive – and thrive – in peace.

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2 Responses to “The Untold Story of the St Andrews’ “Rabbit Wars” of 1801-1821”

  1. lawn mower repair edmonton Says:

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an very long comment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyway, just wanted to say superb blog!

  2. Lyle Slovick Says:

    Thank you very much for your comments. I appreciate it. Yes, the history is interesting and St. Andrews is a very special place. You really can feel the ghosts of Old Tom Morris there.

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